GRAND SUMO TOURNAMENT
Yokozuna Asashoryu is one of the favorites to win the cup.
Kuhaulua planted isle’s sumotori seeds
From Baldwin to basho, Kuhaulua's back home
Although Jesse Kuhaulua's wrestling days are long past, Hawaii's first sumotori to compete in Japan isn't afraid to throw a headlock or two around anyone who mixes up which high school he attended.
Where: Neal Blaisdell Arena
Time: 4:30 p.m.
The Maui-born Kuhaulua, 62, is back from Japan to promote the Grand Sumo Tournament in Hawaii, held today and tomorrow at the Blaisdell Arena.
For the record, the former sekiwake went to Baldwin.
Back in 1964, after playing football for the Bears, Takamiyama cracked the barrier as the first foreign-born sumo to compete at the highest level.
"I was the first non-Japanese so successfully do sumo," said Kuhaulua, now known by the stable master title Azumazeki. "Oh yes, it was hard. At that time of the year, 19 years after World War II, it was hard. Since Konishiki, and the others in the '80s, it's getting much easier for the foreigners to adjust. Now we have the Mongolians and the Russians, because they're hungry."
Onlookers today at the Blaisdell Arena might spot Kuhaulua offering advice to his protégé, Takamisakari, who along with 39 other top-ranked wrestlers, will compete for two exhibition cups: the Mayor's Cup today starting at 4:30 p.m. and the Governor's Cup tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.
Mongolian yokozunas Asashoryu and Hakuho are the favored competitors.
Long before Hawaii sumotori Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru thrived in the 1990s, there was Takamiyama.
Fans may have caught a glimpse of the sumo elder from Maui as he helped promote this weekend's Grand Sumo Tournament by making himself available at a variety of autograph functions and appearances throughout the week.
Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua, now 62, paved the way for not only Hawaii's future wrestlers in the 2,000-year-old Japanese sport, but was the first foreigner of any kind to win a basho (tournament) in 1972.
Sumo was big back then in the amateur ranks in Hawaii, Kuhaulua explained, in contrast to the current state of the sport.
A former football captain as a 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle at Baldwin High School, Kuhaulua graduated in 1962, and under the advisement of his sumo coach, Isamu Ogasawara, entered the Takasago-Beya stable for training in Japan.
"There is a very large Japanese community here in Hawaii, and sumo was one of the best sports, it was strong, in the early '60s, '70s," said Kuhaulua, who now goes by the stable master name of Azumazeki. "All of a sudden in the '90s, the thing start going down."
He sighed as he continued to sign autographs at the Japanese Cultural Center earlier this week.
Takamiyama still holds the sport's all-time records for most tournaments competed (97), with 1,231 consecutive matches and 1,430 total matches. His 20 years of wrestling is nearly unheard of these days.
With the rise of Takamiyama to prominence -- he elevated to the rank of sekiwake (two notches below yokozuna, or grand champion, and one below ozeki) -- Kuhaulua began a 40-year span from 1964 to 2003 of a Hawaii-born sumo competing at the highest level of the ancient sport.
The torch was passed to Konishiki, then Akebono -- his protégé in the Azumazeki-Beya stable -- and finally Musashimaru.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Takamiyama and Musashimaru, right, showed off their autographed prints before an autograph session this week.
The era ended four years ago with Yokozuna Musashimaru's retirement and the absence of a Hawaii-born heir to take the reigns. Fiamalu Penitani signed autographs alongside the stable master several times this week, to the adulation of throngs of Japanese fans seeking to have their pictures taken with the legends.
He spoke fondly of the adjacent Azumazeki -- a "nice guy, easygoing guy" -- and what he did for the sport, as the two intermittently conversed in Japanese.
"(At first), I just heard of him," Musashimaru said. "People would tell me about him. He made it easier for us because he was the guy who paved the road for us."
Azumazeki was highly accommodating for those who wished to talk to him, offering a seat on the dais next to his considerable frame and putting a good-natured headlock around those who would listen.
Kuhaulua, now a Japanese citizen, lives in Tokyo with his wife. His son, Yumi, works for the New York Yankees. The stable master proudly unpacked a team picture and pointed to his offspring.
But it wasn't always that comfortable there for the Maui boy. He arrived in Japan just 19 years after World War II.
"Anything (was hard), anything," he said in his distinctive, raspy tone. "Food, the language barrier, training in the ring. Training is completely different from other training. I would train early in the morning up to noon. In the afternoon we get the day off. Whereas football practice would be done in the afternoon or the evening. Sumo's in the morning because you don't train when you're heavy and your body's full."
Penitani listened as the elder recounted the early days. It pains the yokozuna that there is no local wrestler to recapture the state's attention to sumo, but he and Kuhaulua are trying to make the sport as visible as possible with its first return to Hawaii since 1993.
"People think, 'aw, no more local boys, nobody like us,'" Musashimaru said. "That's not the point. If nobody goes back in, it probably won't come back this way again."
Since Akebono, Azumazeki has groomed Japanese-born sumo Takamisakari into a force at the makuuchi (upper division) level, and will have the pleasure of watching him compete today for the Mayor's Cup and tomorrow for the Governor's Cup at the Blaisdell Arena.
He offered a clue for local fans to recognize his pupil.
"He's the one who's always slapping his face," Azumazeki said, smiling.
Takamisakari could be one of the last of the 100-plus sumotori the elder has trained since 1986, as the stable master will retire in three years when he turns 65.